Geena Davis: Kudos to Jennifer Lawrence, But Women in Hollywood Have a Long Way to Go
The Oscar-winning actress, who runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, writes about how women’s representation in Hollywood has remained static since 1946.
Something’s going on—you can feel it. Sandra Bullock has a movie coming out Friday in a part that was written for George Clooney. Looks like Charlize Theron is going to play a role that’s been gender-switched, too. In 2013, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen (both with strong female leads) each topped $400,000,000. Jennifer Lawrence writes about pay inequality (yay, Jen!) and the Internet breaks. My peers are getting their stories out there in a big way. And articles are coming out fast and furious, proclaiming that “now things have changed.”
Not so fast. Why am I qualified to say not so fast? Because I’m a big fat expert on this stuff. You probably don’t know this, but I’ve run a research institute (the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media) since 2006, and we’ve sponsored the largest amount of research ever done on gender depictions in entertainment media. So I happen to know exactly what’s going on. And it’s too soon to say things have changed.
I believed things were changing way back, nearly 25 years ago, when Thelma & Louise came out and did whatever version we had back then of blowing up the Internet. It was predicted everywhere that now things would change—that there would be so many more movies starring women, about women (though a few also predicted that the world would go to hell because “now the women had guns”). When my next movie A League of Their Own came out, the prediction was, “Now it’s been proven beyond any doubt that there’s a market for female sports movies and we’ll be seeing lots of them.” All that sounded perfectly plausible to me, but neither prediction proved true.
Turns out that hit movies starring women, however many there have been, have not generated momentum in the industry—not yet. And as the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, it hasn’t happened.” The fact is, according to my institute’s research, the ratio of male-to-female characters in films has been exactly the same since 1946. Articles predicting a sea change have always been wrong. So far.
My intense passion for numbers began about 10 years ago, when I started watching G-rated videos and little kids’ television shows with my 2-year-old daughter. I think because I’d played some roles that resonated with women, I immediately noticed that there were far more male characters than female ones in what was actually made for kids. As a mother I thought, “In the 21st century? Really?” The thing is, I didn’t plan then to become a big fat expert. I figured I would just mention it when I had meetings around town and see what people said. But when I asked directors, producers, and studio execs, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in G- and PG-rated movies?” the response from every single person was, “No, that’s been fixed.”
No one was blowing me off, mind you. They all expressed very strong interest in doing right by girls. But often they would bring up a movie with one female character as proof that gender inequality in kids’ entertainment had been fixed. That’s why I wanted the numbers; it turned out that no one had ever studied gender depictions in kids’ media! So because I take everything too far, my institute has sponsored a massive amount of research on how women and girls are represented in film, covering more than a 20-year span. And the results aren’t pretty.
In what we call family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), for every one female speaking character, there are about three male speaking characters. And get this: The crowd scenes in these movies—live-action and animated—are made up of only 17 percent female characters. Seventeen percent? How does that even happen? The only reason I can think of is that Hollywood writers believe women don’t like to gather.
Of course it’s not just the quantity of female characters that’s shocking—it’s the quality as well. Women hold only 20 percent of the jobs, and it’s extremely rare that they’re a leader in any field. They’re profoundly sexualized, even in G-rated movies, and very often are simply the token female, or serve the function of eye candy. They are not having half of the adventures or doing half of the interesting things that male characters do.
So what message are we sending to girls and boys from the very beginning, if the female characters are sexualized, valued for their looks, one-dimensional, sidelined, stereotyped… or simply not there at all? We are training them to see that women and girls are not as important as men and boys. We are teaching them that women and girls do not take up half of the space in the world.
But there’s good news, too: Things will change, and very soon. Once I had the data, I started visiting all the studios, networks, guilds, and production companies and presented the research to them in a private, collegial way. The reaction? Their jaws were on the floor. They had no idea they were leaving out that many female characters. Sure, they knew they were making fewer movies with female leads, but the fact that they were creating fictitious worlds nearly bereft of any female presence was big news to them. You might think it’s weird for creators not to realize what’s in their creations (or what’s left out of them), but think about it: They were all raised on the same ratio of male-to-female characters, and absorbed the same unconscious bias we all have.
The reaction has been remarkable. Once they hear the data, they are eager to make changes—sometimes right on the spot. I have rarely left a meeting without someone saying, “You just changed my project.” We did a survey recently of everyone in the industry who’s heard my presentation, and 68 percent said it had changed two or more of their projects, and 41 percent said it had impacted four or more of their projects. Basically, I would say that if a movie comes out that seems to do right by women, I maybe had something to do with it. But I’m fine being a behind-the-scenes type of gal.
I always share my two simple steps with content creators for quickly adding more female characters: First, whatever you’re making, before you cast your project, go through the script and change a bunch of first names to female ones. Second, whenever a scene calls for a crowd, write into the script, “…which is half female.” Bam! Now, you’ve significantly boosted the female population, and probably made some characters more interesting now that they’ve had a gender-swap.
So while it’s too soon to say things have changed/are changing, based on the reaction we get in our meetings (and we visit all of the studios over and over), I feel very confident in predicting that things will change—and soon. As of 2014, the needle still hadn’t moved. Will 2015 be the year it finally does? Maybe. We’ll have to see when we update our research. But we do know this: When the needle does move, after nearly seven decades of being completely stuck, it will be historic.